The failure of al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies during the war in Iraq has bolstered a growing belief among U.S. intelligence agencies that 19 months of worldwide counterterrorism operations and arrests have nearly crippled the organization.
While warning that al Qaeda still appears capable of mounting substantial terrorist operations, senior intelligence officials and members of Congress who review classified material on the matter speak optimistically about the progress made since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by the CIA and FBI working with their foreign counterparts.
The starkest reflection of al Qaeda's status, according to terrorism experts, has been the lack of reprisals for the U.S.-led war against Iraq, especially after leader Osama bin Laden, in an audiotape released April 7, urged followers to mount suicide attacks against the United States and Britain to "avenge the innocent children . . . assassinated in Iraq." By contrast, in 2002, bin Laden messages preceded or followed attacks by al Qaeda and its associates in Pakistan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Yemen and Bali.
Intelligence officials said the killings or capture of senior al Qaeda members, the interrogation of imprisoned figures, the elimination of Afghanistan as a base of operations, and the ongoing hunt for other al Qaeda adherents has disrupted the network's ability to communicate and made it much more difficult for it to plan large-scale attacks.
In addition, officials said, increased vigilance by U.S. and allied intelligence services has increased their ability to deter or disrupt terrorist operations. Some pointed to the success by U.S. and Pakistani authorities last week in foiling an apparent al Qaeda plan to fly an explosives-laden aircraft into the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, as an example.
The al Qaeda leadership was significantly dismantled during the first year following the Sept. 11 strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But terrorist experts still expected bin Laden's followers -- many of them not formally connected to the terrorist organization -- to have carried out attacks during the Iraq war. They said it was noteworthy that this did not occur.
"It's no coincidence" that no operations were mounted, said Cofer Black, a long-time CIA terrorism official who now heads the State Department's counterterrorism office. "This was the big game for them -- you put up or shut up and they have failed. It proves that the global war on terrorism has been effective, focused and has got these guys on the run."
In an interview, Black, who was in charge of the CIA's counterterrorism center before and in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, described the al Qaeda leadership's losses as "catastrophic" and said the broader network "has been unable to withstand the global onslaught" of counterterrorism operations.
Black also said the color-coded U.S. domestic alert system put in place by the Bush administration has helped to "complicate and defeat whatever planning has been in train and has put in serious question any plan in development."
Other intelligence officials tend to agree, although most, including Black, temper their sense of confidence by noting that further attacks, including those hatched some time ago, are still possible. They worry about hidden al Qaeda cells in the United States that might be waiting for the right moment to launch an attack, and about the FBI's ability to find and stop them.
"One is tempted to say [al Qaeda] is crippled," one senior intelligence analyst said. "But they are still capable of more major operations," including those "they have had in the works for years."
Although bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second in command, remain at large, the network's original core group of about 20 senior leaders has been sharply reduced. As President Bush noted in his speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on Thursday, "nearly one-half of al Qaeda's senior operatives have been captured or killed."
Senior intelligence officials point out that the remnants of the network "have difficulty communicating with each other and with operatives in the field, have difficulty moving funds and materiel around" and have not managed to establish any new training camps. What's more, one official said, "every time they seem to be reconstituting themselves, they suffer another misfortune."
The greatest setback to al Qaeda has been the killing or capture of a string of its planners and field operators after the group's original military director, Muhammad Atef, was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in November 2001.